Earlier this week, Austria’s far-right Freedom party — founded in 1956 by a coalition of Nazis who survived the war and eluded punishment — lost the country’s presidential election by a margin of 0.6%. The party’s failed candidate is Norbert Hofer, a 45-year-old engineer who carried a Glock on the campaign trail, suggested that immigrants didn’t have a role in Austrian identity, and was occasionally spotted wearing a blue cornflower (a clandestine symbol that Nazis wore to recognize one another when the party was banned between 1934 and 1938). Spurred by Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis, and lifted by the rising tide of xenophobia that has washed ashore along with it, Hofer won 49.7% of the popular vote.
Once, the idea that a Hitler could rise to power in the 21st century seemed like the fantasy of conspiracy theorists. Today, a better question isn’t if Hitler is coming back, but if we’ll recognize him when he does. Maybe, as in the episode of “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” he’ll come back as the coffee cart guy at a corporate office in Chicago. Maybe, as some have cast Donald Trump, he’ll come back as a bullying businessman who would tear the world to pieces just to secure the power that money can’t buy. But, as a horrifyingly perceptive new German comedy reminds us, one thing’s for sure: Hitler won’t come back as himself.
Based on Timur Vermes’ bestselling 2012 novel of the same name, “Look Who’s Back” begins with a simple premise: What if Adolf Hitler inexplicably reappeared in present-day Berlin, arriving in a poof of smoke that dropped the (very confused) dictator into the public park where his bunker once stood?
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How would contemporary Germans react to the sudden return of their nation’s most notorious native son? Would they believe that it was actually possible for Hitler to return, or would their skepticism and mockery provide the perfect cover for one of history’s greatest monsters to slip past their defenses?
When Vermes wrote the book, Trump was still a reality television star. By the time the film adaptation quietly snuck onto Netflix on April 9th (after being a huge success at the German box office last fall), the world had changed.
Directed by David Wnendt (whose “Wetlands” evoked a very different kind of disgust) and starring Oliver Masucci as the Führer of the future, “Look Who’s Back” is part “Borat” and part “Miracle on 34th Street.” The film is comprised of two very different modes, which it cuts between at will.
One half follows Masucci (an extraordinarily brave actor who looks more like Mads Mikkelsen than Adolf Hitler) as he does man-on-the-street interviews and comedy bits in full Führer regalia. At first, people in Potsdamer Platz treat Hitler in much the same way as people in Times Square treat the anti-semitic Elmo — no one asked him to be there, but you might as well pull him into your selfie. Chaplin may have regretted making “The Great Dictator” once he learned what was happening in the camps, but laughing at Hitler is one of the great joys of being a Jew in the 21st century.
Later improv bits include Hitler posing as a sketch artist (a nod to his time as a failed painter), intimidating the shit out of Germany’s right-wing youth, and even appearing as a guest on a vegan neo-Nazi cooking show. Like Borat, this Hitler seduces the people into betraying their thinly disguised natures as racists and rubes — it’s shocking how not shocking it is to see that a gentle nudge can spur some ordinary citizens into frothing fonts of nationalism, anti-semitism, and Islamophobia.
The film’s other mode, at first glance, appears to be a more traditional fish-out-of-water comedy. When Hitler reappears, one of the first to spot him is bumbling TV reporter Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch). A recently fired dweeb who lives with his mother, Fabian takes one look at Hitler and his eyeballs all but turn into dollar symbols. The feeling is mutual, as the fallen Führer rediscovers the power of television: “What a splendid means of propaganda.” After abortive attempts to make his confused new friend the star of a nature show (it rains) and an animal show (Hitler shoots a puppy), Fabian makes the inevitable leap to politics and the rest is history.
Hitler, as he tells us in ceaseless voiceover that suffocates much of the film’s comedy (but pays off in its grim final moments), is initially frustrated that Nazism has become such a joke. But it doesn’t take long before he tones down his rage, opens his ears, and listens to the common people who tell him how to exploit this brave new world. When Fabian’s former boss casts the reanimated dictator as a character on a live comedy show, Hitler gets to make the most of what he’s learned.
On air, Hitler plainly states his plan for world domination, but the audience thinks it’s hysterical. Viewers assume they’re watching a deeply committed performer in the vein of Sacha Baron Cohen, and Hitler becomes a star. Young people across the country take a shine to him, reluctantly conceding that some of the stuff he’s saying makes more sense than it should. Hitler writes a book — it’s a hit. A movie is adapted from it — it’s huge. By the time Fabian realizes he’s been promoting the genuine article, the Hitler toothpaste is already out of the tube.
“Look Who’s Back” is only sporadically hilarious. However, its genius lies in slowly lowering your defenses as the clumsy fiction half grows increasingly realistic and spins out of Fabian’s control. Hitler makes the talk-show rounds, openly discussing his vision of a more perfect Germany with anyone who will listen (he’s light on details, and speaks in rhetoric that taps into the frustrations of low-income citizens). People love him, and he’s made unstoppable by the fact that pushing boundaries is part of his brand — even when the footage of him shooting that puppy comes to light, his rise only stalls for a second. “We are racing towards the abyss,” Hitler declares on live television, “but we don’t see it because on TV, you cannot see the abyss.” (On a completely unrelated note, remember last November when Donald Trump hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live?” That was so funny.)
Eventually, this movie that invited us to laugh at the sight of Hitler wearing a cardigan and gawking at Segways stops encouraging us to laugh at him at all. Hitler believes it’s his destiny to be resurrected and continue his struggle, and so his voiceover is tinged with raw sincerity as he reminds us that he received 43.9% of the vote in the democratic election that positioned him for dictatorship. At one point, Hitler declares his intentions to “Make Germany great again.” This movie was shot almost two years ago.
“Do I look like a criminal?” Masucci asks. “You look like Adolf Hitler,” comes the deadpan reply. But if we can entertain the farcical notion of the actual Hitler returning to capitalize on today’s political climate, then it’s certainly possible for someone with a less incriminating history.
“Look Who’s Back” ends with footage of Masucci riding in the back seat of an open sedan as some people run after him yelling furious epithets, while others offer the Nazi salute. Wnendt splices the scene with images of the riots that have broken out across Europe in recent years. Hitler chuckles, “I can work with this.” It’s one thing to laugh at our monsters — it’s another to let them in on the joke.
“Look Who’s Back” is available to stream on Netflix.